I'll Have a Hillel, Please!
The name John Montagu may not mean very much to most people but I am sure that his title will have a lot more name recognition. Montagu lived in the 18th century and he was an earl in the English aristocracy – his official title was the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Legend has it that he was so addicted to the gaming tables, especially card playing, that he resented every moment that was taken up with the “unimportant” things in life, such as eating, so he came up with a brilliant idea. He asked his butler to bring him some roasted meat in between two pieces of bread, and that way he would be able to continue gambling while he ate, and also not get the cards greasy from the meat. And thus the “sandwich” was born, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, it may seem like an odd choice to talk about sandwiches on Passover, but even before we get to that I have a slight quibble with the name “sandwich”. Sandwiches should not be called sandwiches at all. Rather, they should really be called “Hillels”. You see, just over two thousand years ago lived one of the greatest Rabbis in Jewish history. He was called Hillel (or Hillel the Elder), and he led the Jewish People through very turbulent times. Among the many laws and traditions that he instituted was eating a sandwich on Seder night. True, it was not a traditional sandwich made of two slices of bread — it was made with matzah instead — but it was definitely a sandwich. The ingredients were two pieces of matzah with bitter herbs in between and some of the Passover offering. Imagine, over seven hundred years before the Earl of Sandwich had his epiphany, we Jews were eating, well… sandwiches!
Sandwiches have come a long way since the Earl of Sandwich’s day. They are often works of art with exotic ingredients, and bear little resemblance to the original, but methinks that the earliest prototype, created by Hillel, was actually rather an odd combination, because the two ingredients that we use today, matzah and bitter herbs, represent two diametrically opposed concepts in Jewish philosophy. On the one hand, the matzah represents independence, the dough that did not have time to rise before we were rushed out of Egypt to freedom. The bitter herbs, on the other hand, represent the bitterness and the struggles of enslavement. Why would Hillel want to combine the two together? What was Hillel trying to teach us? Hillel’s message is short, simple and deceptively deep — in life there is no such thing as only good or only bad. In our lives we experience both good and bad within each other continuously. And within the good and within the bad we have to find Gd, and remain connected to Gd. Especially when it is hard to do so. That is why Hillel instituted eating a sandwich made of foods that represent both the good and the bad, to remind us of that fundamental idea.
Somewhat ironically, in the same era that the Earl of Sandwich was “discovering” the sandwich there lived a Rabbi who was both a brilliant Talmud scholar and an equally brilliant orator. His name was Rabbi Yaakov Wolf Kranz – more commonly known as the “Maggid from Dubnow” (the city that he lived in). He was famous for his ability to explain complicated concepts using parables and stories so that even the simplest layman was able to understand them. And the Maggid from Dubnow had the most delightful parable to explain the bitter herbs at the Seder table, and how they apply to us today. There was once two friends, one Jewish and the other not, who eked out their livings by begging in the streets. One day the Jew looked very happy with himself, and his friend asked him why. So he told him that in a few days it was going to be Passover and he was guaranteed a veritable feast. He waxed lyrical about the golden chicken soup and the crispy roasted chicken with spicy potato kugel that he was sure to eat on the first night of Passover. His non-Jewish friend was consumed (pun intended) with envy, and also with a desire to have such a meal. So he asked him whether there was any way that it might be possible for him to join in as well. His Jewish friend thought for a bit and told him that there might be a way to do it. He told his friend that he should come to the Synagogue with him on Passover night and stand together with all the other poor people who need a place for the Seder. At some point he would be matched up with a generous host who was looking for guests to share the festive meal with. The Jew told his friend that when he gets to the house he should just copy what everyone else does — stand when they stand, sit when they sit, eat when they eat — and everything will be okay. On that night, everything worked like clockwork. The non-Jew was sent off after the Prayer Services to the house of a wealthy man where everything looked exquisite, and the smells from the kitchen were beyond tantalizing. The beginning was just fine with a glass of wine and then some “hors d'oeuvres”, but after that the food just didn’t seem to materialize. First they began to read in Hebrew and Yiddish for hours, and then, just as he thought they were finally going to eat, everyone was given an enormous portion of bitter herbs to eat. As you can imagine, he dashed out of there as fast as he could, and had a very unhappy and a very hungry night! A few days later he met his friend and he spilled out his tale of woe, how he must have ended up in the wrong house since all they wanted to do was to eat bitter herbs. Instead of commiserating with him as he expected, his friend looked at him and told him, “You fool! Only after the bitter herbs is the delicious food served!”
The Maggid from Dubnow explained that we Jews have truly eaten a lot of “bitter herbs” in our history. And it is true that presently we are living in very bitter and unsettled times. But, hopefully, very, very soon it will be time to eat the most delicious feast of all time. The feast that will herald in the Messianic Era. The message of Hillel resonates within us. Within the bitterness there is sweetness — truly an abundance of sweetness!
Many years ago a non-Jewish family opened a fruit-and-vegetable store in our local area. My mother always felt that it was correct to support the local stores, and she started to buy her produce there. As they opened only a few weeks before Passover she told all her friends to make their Passover orders there to help the new business. So, along came a small army of Jewish clients, all placing their Passover orders, and, of course, each one asked for a generous amount of horseradish for the bitter herbs. The store owner, knowing nothing about the Jewish year and the Jewish festivals, ran out of horseradish pretty quickly, and not a few people were quite upset. A few weeks after Passover my mother went into the store to make her weekly order, and with a big smile the store owner, seeing her, asked her to come to the back of the store where he stored all the produce that wasn’t out on display. The first thing that my mother saw was a small mountain of horseradish in the middle of the area. The store owner proudly told my mother that he had made some investigations and found out that there was another Jewish festival coming up, and this time there would be no mishaps, as he had literally cornered the horseradish market! My mother was at a loss as to what to do. She absolutely did not want to hurt his feelings, but, on the other hand, she couldn’t let him try selling horseradish (which is an obligation to eat only on Passover) to all of his new Jewish clients, as they would think that he was completely insane! So, in the end she bought pounds and pounds of horseradish which sat around in our garden shed for months until they had to be thrown out. (Afterwards, my mother told the store owner that she would keep him informed of the Jewish festivals and customs so that he wouldn’t make any more mistakes… and so that we wouldn’t have to live with an “Everestial” pile of horseradish!)
There is a famous saying that when life throws lemons at you, make lemonade. Perhaps we can paraphrase that and say, “When life throws bitter herbs our way let’s make them as sweet as we can!” And with